Let’s start from the very basics of mixing and, first of all, we should take a quick look at the recording process itself. When the song is being recorded, all instruments get recorded separately.
The first recordings had mono sound, and we could only play it back over one speaker. It was also captured with just one microphone. If we wanted to achieve balance between all these instruments, we had to move the musicians all over the room. For example, if someone would have played a solo, they had to step up to get closer to the microphone.
But nowadays most of the people listen to their music over headphones and that’s one of the reasons why we work with stereo mixing.
Supposing we take a band that we’re going to be recording and mixing. We’ve got a drum kit, a bass player, two guitar players, a keyboard players, and a small brass section. There will be a microphone in front of every instrument that will transmit a mono signal, which is being fed into the mixing console where we take care of the levels. After that, everything will be sent to tape.
Of course, this is now mainly done on a computer. But let’s still use the reference of a tape machine just for the simplicity of understanding signal flow.
If two bands play a song, we’ll record eight separate tracks of their instruments. Then there’s a mixing phase. Generally speaking, we’re going to fit the whole band into two speakers. In order to do that, we should visualize a three-dimensional space in between those speakers, where we’re going to move instruments forward and backward by changing the volume. This is basically moving sounds over the Z-axis.
We can move the pan knob on each channel from left to right between our speakers. When the sounds are panned right in the middle, it means that they come just as loud out of the left speaker as out of the right one.
Of course, we don’t have any speakers in the center, because, as mentioned earlier, it will be a stereo mix. Nevertheless, we can play with instruments over the vertical axis with the means of frequency, assuming that the bass is low and the treble is high.
Let’s return to the eight-track recording that we’ve just talked about. Normally, we should use the audience’s view as our perspective.
Supposing that two guitar players were standing at both sides of the room. That means, it’d be better to pan the first guitar a little bit to the left and the second one a little bit to the right, thus, creating some space in our mix.
It is actually a good rule of thumb that bass frequencies should always come out of the center.
Let’s take a look at some styles of mixing
- The gaps in between the instruments can be filled up with a little bit of reverb. This is something which could suit very well for a Jazz Mix.
- As for commercial productions either it’d be pop, or dance or hip hop or even a pop rock type of song, their type of mixing style focuses on the vocals, which seemed to be in front of the band, or at least in front of the music.
- If we’re going to take a look at more underground productions, you can see that the vocals are not that upfront as in the commercial type of mixes.
Your mix doesn’t have to have the vocals really a front like in a commercial type of product. Everybody should go for the sound that fits their own song and the type of production.
Next, we’re going to start with the volume into panning and place all the instruments where we want them to be. That will clean up a lot and make the things more defined and separated. After that, we can filter off some of the frequencies that we don’t need and highlight some of the frequencies that we’d like to emphasize a little bit more with the use of an equalizer. That’s a good option when the dynamics of certain instruments are fluctuating too much like, for example, on the bass or on the snare. In that case, we can use a compressor to make sure that they stay in a better balance.